2018
October
31
Wednesday

To the reporter, there was a jarring irony. The man accused of killing 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue was given critical care by Jewish doctors. But to Jeff Cohen, the Jewish president of the hospital, there was only a duty to care. “People say he’s evil,” Dr. Cohen told the reporter in a widely shared video. “He’s some mother’s son.”

In looking through the eyes of a mother, Cohen touched on something powerful. I’m reminded of a recent conversation with our Canada reporter, Sara Miller Llana. Speaking about how she approached reporting in areas gripped by violence and fear, she said “I always tried to connect with mothers (and fathers).” So often, she said, reporters go into these areas and report just on the bullets and the gangs. “But there are also mothers behind every closed door, raising kids, and for the most part doing the best job they can to keep those kids safe.”

Looking at the world that way changed the way she saw the world, she said. “It is so telling to me that every place I've been has always, without fail, been better, safer, more hopeful than what I imagined based on what I read in the media.”

That spirit, as Cohen said, is a duty to care for all, and it is not naive to recognize that the power it showed on a tragic day in Pittsburgh is always available.

Now, here are our five stories for today, with a look at a problem-solving insurgency in Congress, a humanitarian dilemma for Syrian refugees, and the message behind the world’s largest statue.

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1. How test of Germany’s ‘anchor’ role could become a test for Europe

Germany’s calm, centrist pragmatism has long been the bedrock of efforts to build European unity. Now, as it increasingly faces the same political upheaval that has roiled the West, Germany will be a vital player in figuring out how democracies evolve. 

Mark
Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a news conference following the Hesse state election in Berlin Oct. 29. Ms. Merkel announced that she would not seek reelection when her term expires in 2021. “It is time today for me to start a new chapter,” she told reporters.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel is on her way out, the latest European victim of voters’ anger with the same old same old. Ms. Merkel announced she would not stand for reelection after her party made its worst showing in over 50 years in local elections in Hesse last Sunday. Her governing coalition partners did even worse, while the far-right Alternative for Germany and the moderately progressive Greens surged in the polls. This more even spread of votes across the spectrum from left to right means no more domination by big parties and no more easily formed governments. It took six months to build a coalition government after last year’s German elections. If that becomes the norm, the country that has dominated Europe and provided a steady anchor to the European Union is likely to be much more concerned with its own business than with international affairs. It will also be a test case for the continent: Can the traditional establishment parties make themselves more responsive and ward off the populist wave?

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How test of Germany’s ‘anchor’ role could become a test for Europe

For decades, the overwhelming majority of German voters stuck loyally to the two centrist parties that have dominated political life since World War II. But familiarity has bred contempt.

October regional elections in the states of Bavaria and Hesse have shown those voters coming unstuck, fanning out instead to non-traditional parties on both right and left. And the shifting allegiances have thrown German politics into unprecedented doubt – already leading Chancellor Angela Merkel to announce plans to leave Germany's political stage.

But as a long-time bedrock of European stability, a now politically uncertain Germany will cast a shadow over the rest of the continent as well.

Voters' flight from the political middle “is a lasting trend that makes Germany similar to its neighbors in Europe,” says Gero Neugebauer, who teaches politics at the Free University of Berlin. “It’s a trend to normalization and we have to get used to it.”

‘A completely redrawn political landscape’

Chancellor Merkel announced Monday she would not stand again for her party’s leadership in a December vote, and that she would retire from politics when her term of office ends in 2021. She had little choice after the ruling Christian Democrats made their worst showing since 1962 in regional elections in Hesse on Sunday.

Merkel’s coalition government partner, the Social Democrats, fared even worse, coming in third, with 10 percent fewer votes than in the last elections. The big winners? The moderately progressive Greens, who took 20 percent of the vote, and the far-right, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which tripled its score to 13 percent.

These results echoed those of earlier regional elections in Bavaria. There, the two leading centrist parties' vote share slumped by 21 percent, while the AfD and Greens' combined vote jumped by 19 percent from the last regional elections.

Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa/AP
Supporters of the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) celebrate after the state election in the German state of Hesse in Wiesbaden, western Germany, on Oct. 28.

Overall, this reflects not so much a polarization of the electorate as diffusion, says Jan Techau, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “As society has grown more diverse and fragmented, the political party system has emulated this” in a number of European nations, he points out.

“In some countries, we see a completely redrawn political landscape,” agrees Morgan Guérin, head of the Europe program at the Montaigne Institute, a Paris-based think tank. “Where big blocs on the left and right used to dominate … now four or five parties can win around 20 percent.”

The impact on the German political landscape has been profound. Since general elections in September 2017, uncertainty has overshadowed national political life. It took six months to form a governing coalition which has been dangerously fragile ever since its ministers took office.

And a new government may be needed soon. Speculation is rife in Berlin about how long a weakened Ms. Merkel can remain in her job, and the new electoral math will make it as hard to build the next government as it was to create the current one last year.

Chances are that it will take a three-party coalition, says Mr. Techau, with all the instability that implies – and all the effort devoted to keeping the government together instead of governing. “A time of succession and internal turmoil will mean introspection and a lesser role on the international stage,” he says.

Less time for European policymaking?

And that is not good news for Europe, says Sheri Berman, professor of European politics at Barnard College in New York. “Without Germany as a stable and default leader” in Europe, she says, “there are serious questions about the future.”

That’s because Germany has long been Europe’s dominant power, however reluctant Merkel has been to play that role. Under her leadership Germany was the decisive player in managing the Greek debt crisis; Berlin was at the vanguard of a strong European reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, insisting on tough sanctions; and Merkel led the way in welcoming refugees fleeing to Europe in 2015 and 2016.

As a lame duck chancellor now, Merkel will not be able to take such initiatives, further hobbling European policymaking.

“It is already very difficult to achieve anything among the 27 members [of the EU],” says Mr. Guérin, pointing to persistent disagreements on migration policy as an example. “The No. 1 political power in Europe being in a period of introspection will make European politics even more complicated.”

Nor will it be easy to find a successor to Merkel who will match her political skills. “It will be tricky to find someone with her nerves of steel and her ability to forge a compromise,” says Techau. “People have found her reliable, predictable, and steady.”

The next leader of Merkel’s party, whoever that proves to be, will have to decide on fresh policies, and though they are certain to maintain Germany’s commitment to the European Union, they might well put Germany’s national interests ahead of a readiness to compromise for the common good, says Dr. Neugebauer.

“A majority of Germans think we should take care of ourselves first,” he says.

Whether the next government, whoever leads it, will succeed in winning disaffected voters back from the margins is less clear.

“There is definitely a crisis of confidence in liberal democracy” around the world, says Professor Berman. “Germany is part of a wider trend. But liberal democracy’s health will depend on how parties handle the challenges that voters are concerned with. Can the establishment make its institutions more responsive?”

German voters’ flight from traditional establishment parties “is inextricably tied to what is happening everywhere else in the world,” says Nathalie Tocci, head of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. “We are going through this wave at a global level.”

“If it happens in Germany,” long wedded to a stable political center, “then no country is immune,” Dr. Tocci adds. “But that does not mean it’s game over for democracy.”

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2. In Congress, the representatives who don’t see ‘compromise’ as a dirty word

Is there a different way to govern in this era of hyperpartisan politics? Twenty-four Democrats and 24 Republicans in Congress think so. And they're staking their careers on it.  

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In an era of hyperpartisan politics, Jesse Colvin and his wife, Jordan, are an anomaly: She’s a registered Republican, while he’s running for Congress as a Democrat in Maryland’s 1st district. Despite the odds, the couple are convinced that they represent a sizable slice of the American public that still values practical governance and common ground. Which is the reason Mr. Colvin has signed a pledge to “Break the Gridlock” – a promise that, if elected, he will support an effort by the House Problem Solvers Caucus to change the rules around electing a speaker of the House. Members of the caucus, which was formed in January 2017, say the rules change will make it easier to craft and pass bipartisan laws. It may be a tough sell at a time when partisanship is rewarded, but members who’ve committed to the cause say it feels worthwhile. “People say we’re tilting at windmills,” says Rep. Tom Reed (R) of New York, who co-chairs the caucus. “But there’s a lot of folks on both sides that are like, ‘This is toxic.’ Any compromise is seen as a sellout. We’re not buying that anymore.”

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In Congress, the representatives who don’t see ‘compromise’ as a dirty word

The RV rumbles down the highway, south and east toward Salisbury in the heart of Marlyand’s Eastern Shore.

Inside, amid a spill of snacks and half-empty water bottles, Jordan Colvin explains why she didn’t vote for her husband in the state primary in June.

Or rather, why she couldn’t.

Ms. Colvin is a registered Republican. Her husband, Jesse, is running in Maryland’s 1st congressional district as a Democrat. The best she could do, she says, was campaign on his behalf. “I got a lot of votes for him,” she says, grinning.

In an election cycle that’s been one of the most polarizing in modern times – and in an era when Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on even basic facts – the Colvins’s bipartisan household seems anomalous, almost quaint.

But Mr. Colvin says he and his wife represent a sizable slice of the American public that still values practical governance and common ground, and believes those things possible.

The former US Army Ranger, who’s running a long-shot campaign against Republican incumbent Andy Harris, says party affiliation hasn’t stopped him and Jordan from sharing a life or raising their baby son. “You start with commonality, you build a relationship, then you can start dealing with tough issues,” Colvin says.

Why, he asks, shouldn’t the same apply to good leadership?

At least one group in Congress agrees. The Problem Solvers Caucus is made up of 48 members, 24 from each major party, who’ve vowed to counteract gridlock in the House of Representatives. Their big idea: to reform the system so that members have to both work with colleagues across the aisle and vote on compromise legislation.

“We’re trying to encourage consensus-driven government,” says Rep. Tom Reed (R) of New York, who co-chairs the caucus. “We want to work with fellow members and cut out the shenanigans.”

The jury’s still out on whether the concept has legs, and whether it can survive the election or the more extreme elements in the House. Since forming in 2017, the caucus has crafted several bipartisan bills on issues such as immigration and health care, but has struggled to get them debated on the floor.

Now the group is focused on supporting members who are up for reelection – and recruiting candidates like Colvin. Once the new session starts, they’ll shift their attention to electing a speaker who pledges to support a package of reforms around the way bills are passed in the House.

It’s an effort to bring folks together at a time when Congress is best known for bickering and inaction. And members who’ve committed to the cause say it feels worthwhile.

“I think it’s the best thing I do in Washington,” says Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D) of New Jersey, who was elected co-chair with Congressman Reed. “We’re governing.”

Birth of a caucus

The Problem Solvers Caucus began as the idea of No Labels, a nonpartisan nonprofit that has its sights set on getting leaders in Washington to work together.

In 2013, No Labels started bringing together congressmen and -women who were interested in pushing past hyperpartisan politics. The group became the Problem Solvers. Members met informally until after the 2016 election, when some in the group decided they wanted to form a proper congressional caucus – a coalition that could actually influence policy.

“We got together and said, ‘Let’s get people who really want to walk the walk,’ ” Reed says.

In January 2017, they created the Problem Solvers Caucus 2.0, separate from No Labels. They adopted bylaws that called for members – who were always to be an even split between Democrats and Republicans – to vote as a bloc. They agreed to avoid actively campaigning against each other or donating to members’ opponents.

And they got to work.

Members met over lunch and after hours, drawing up bills on white boards, over coffee. They came up with a health-care plan that tried to balance marketplace stability and lower costs. They spent about four months negotiating a proposal that paired a path to citizenship for qualifying undocumented immigrants with a $1.6 billion-plan for barriers and fencing along the border.

Neither bill even made it to the floor for a vote. In the way was the Hastert Rule, which says the speaker of the House shouldn’t schedule a vote on legislation unless a majority of the majority party supports it. It’s a quick way to kill minority – or bipartisan – measures that could find broad support in the full House.

The rule, named after the now disgraced Speaker Dennis Hastert, helped lead the caucus to prioritize reform within the legislature before they took on other issues.

In July, the Problem Solvers launched “Break the Gridlock,” a reform package that would require relevant committees to mark up, within 30 days, any bill that gets at least two-thirds of the House as co-sponsors. The Rules Committee would also have to report that bill unless the entire committee rejects it.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Jesse Colvin, a first time candidate for Congress, gears up to knock on a resident's door on Oct. 19, in Salisbury, Md. In September, Mr. Colvin, a Democrat, signed a pledge to “Break the Gridlock” with the House Problem Solvers Caucus.

The package also proposes repealing the 200-year-old rule that lets any House member call for a “motion to vacate the chair” – a declaration to formally remove a sitting speaker and elect a new one. The caucus says the procedure basically holds the speaker hostage to minority interests.

Instead, the group suggests a petition process that requires the signatures of one-third of all House members before a motion to oust a speaker can be considered on the floor. Today 20 members (10 Republicans and 10 Democrats), have signed the Break the Gridlock pledge.

“The House rules change is key,” says former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee and co-founded No Labels. “If you have an amendment with substantial support, you can bring it up and at least have a vote on it.”

This isn’t the first time someone tried amending the rules. In 2015, Rep. Paul Ryan tried to make changing the “motion to vacate” rule a condition of his bid for speaker. When the Freedom Caucus reportedly opposed the condition, Speaker Ryan agreed to delay the issue. The rule remains in place today.

The Problem Solvers expect to see similar pushback to their proposal from both party leadership and coalitions like the conservative Freedom Caucus, which see the current system as essential to keeping the speaker’s power in check. They acknowledge needing numbers. Still, Reed and his colleagues are hoping that after Nov. 6, a slimmer majority in the House – regardless of which party holds it – could boost their level of influence.

“If you have a five- or 10-seat majority, and there’s 10 of us saying, ‘No, we’re not going to vote with you without rule reform,’ that’s simple math,” the congressman says. “You won’t get to 218” – the minimum number of members needed to elect a speaker.

#BreaktheGridlock

To Colvin, pledging to #BreaktheGridlock, which he did in September, seemed a natural fit. He was already campaigning on practical governance, he says. Splashed on the side of his 36-foot campaign motor home, known to family and staff as “Camp Colvin,” were the words, “Country over party.”

As the RV lumbers past towns that edge the Chesapeake Bay, the Colvins explain how they make a bipartisan marriage work in an age of hyperpartisanship. The secret, they say, is in finding shared purpose.

In their case, it’s service. Between 2010 and 2013, Colvin – the son of a public defender and a district court judge – served four tours in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. Jordan Colvin spent two years as an investigator with the D.C. police department’s human trafficking and narcotics division. Now, while Jesse focuses on the campaign full time, Jordan brings an income through her nonprofit, which connects military veterans with service animals.

“We don’t care if [our son] becomes a Democrat or a Republican,” Colvin says. “But we do care if he cares about public service.”

Will that attitude be enough to undo the damage that toxic partisanship has dealt the country? Or win a first-time candidate a longshot congressional seat?

Colvin has to believe it can. On the bus, and later as he canvassed through a Salisbury neighborhood with his staff and volunteers, he brought up the importance, and challenge, of connecting with people. Of putting in time. Forging bonds. “You show up and be a presence in the community and just try to build relationships,” he says, when asked about reaching out to minority residents in his district. 

When he talked about working with US government agencies and contractors in Afghanistan: “You had to get the bureaucracy managed and you could only do that if you had the relationships to say, ‘Hey, I need you to work on this. We need to do it together.’ ”

And as the Colvin crew made their way to a supporter meet-and-greet to close out the day: “The secret sauce is that there is none,” he says. “Just building relationships.”

Back in Washington, the Problem Solvers echo the sentiment.

Gottheimer says all those long nights have led to stronger ties with colleagues he used to barely talk to. And while he’s not envisioning a return to some nonexistent “good ol’ days,” he does like to think that they can move toward a more cordial, and efficient, future.

“It’s hard to have an open, honest conversation with people if you don’t trust them,” Gottheimer says. “If we want to pass good and durable laws, we have to have the relationships to be able to talk to one another and really engage.”

“People say we’re tilting at windmills,” Reed adds. “But there’s a lot of folks on both sides that are like, ‘This is toxic.’ Any compromise is seen as a sellout. We’re not buying that anymore.” 

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3. Syria crisis: Will donor fatigue push refugees back too soon?

The cost to the global community of helping Syrian refugees in places like Jordan is immense. But Syria is not remotely ready to begin taking refugees back. As international patience wanes, refugees are left to make the best of bad options.

Mark
Taylor Luck
Syrian and Jordanian children learn how to wash their hands at a hygiene tutorial at a UNICEF-supported Makani center in north Amman. Amid funding cuts for Syrian refugees, 100 of these centers have been closed.

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To forward-thinking humanitarian organizations and their donors, postwar reconstruction of Syria sounds like a good idea. In fact, several groups that have partnered with the United Nations have begun redirecting their priorities away from caring for refugees and toward Syria’s stabilization. The flow of donor interest has even led several NGOs to float tenders for projects within Syria. “The new buzzword is ‘reconstruction,’ and everyone wants a piece of the pie,” says an aid worker. “Refugees in donors’ minds are old news.” In Jordan, that diverting of funds has meant serious cuts in aid to refugees, who are losing assistance for housing, food, and children’s schooling. Yet UN officials warn that conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for the return of millions, many of whom have been targeted by their own government. And some refugees say their choice is between poverty and a fearful environment. Says Stefan Severe, representative for the UN’s refugee agency in Jordan: “We don’t want to push refugees back into Syria before it and they are ready, and we don’t want to leave vulnerable Syrians in host countries without vital support.”

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Syria crisis: Will donor fatigue push refugees back too soon?

Yusra Ajaj is facing a life or death decision.

A widowed mother of three, Ms. Ajaj is considering leaving Jordan, the country she has called home since war consumed her homeland and killed her husband in 2013.

After nearly five years, her life is once again in upheaval. In April, the United Nations stopped her monthly cash assistance of $210, which she relied upon to pay rent. Then in September, the UN cut her monthly $175 in food vouchers, which she had recently resorted to selling on the black market in order to pay her bills.

Now Ajaj is faced with what she describes as “two worst cases” – poverty and homelessness in Jordan, or return to Syria. Worse still, she says the decision is being made for her.

“I fear that the international community is trying to push us back into Syria,” Ajaj says as she enters the offices of a Jordanian NGO in the northern city of Mafraq to ask for cash assistance.

Across Jordan and Lebanon, Syrian refugees are finding their assistance cut, medical aid suspended, and educational programs axed as international donor fatigue sets in over the Syrian crisis. The UN and its partner agencies across the Middle East are being hit hard.

Yet despite a new push by humanitarian organizations to focus on reconstruction in Syria and encourage refugee returns, UN officials warn that conditions there are not yet stable or conducive for a mass return of the 5 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries.

Instead, they warn, the cuts in aid will leave tens of thousands of families deep in poverty in host countries unable to support them.

A snowball effect

In late September, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), which has taken the lead in providing life-saving and sustaining assistance to 5.6 million Syrian refugees across the Middle East, issued an urgent appeal for $270 million by the end of the month.

If it did not receive these funds, it warned, it would have to suspend services for millions of refugees, including cash assistance to 456,000 vulnerable Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon.

This money is used for rent and food, crucial for the 80 percent of Syrian refugees who live in urban areas and not camps and are under the poverty line.

“If we stop this assistance, then thousands of families cannot pay the rent, and this will create a devastating snowball effect in host communities,” says Stefan Severe, UNHCR’s Jordan representative.

The shortfall is not a blip, but the latest sign of endemic shortages. As of late September, the entire UNHCR budget for the Syrian crisis of $1.97 billion was 35 percent funded for 2018. Other UN agencies and its partners face similar deficits.

Funding for UNICEF Jordan, which supports Jordanian schools and educational programs, is down significantly even as the number of Syrian students is rising.

“If funding continues to reduce at this pace, we will continue to make difficult choices and minimize the impact on the most vulnerable children,” says UNICEF Jordan Representative Robert Jenkins. “But we cannot completely protect them.”

Keeping kids in school

One of the first casualties was the hajati program, under which UNICEF provided $28 a month to vulnerable Syrian students to help pay for transportation, uniforms, and even shoes to attend school. The program aims to encourage some of the 90,000 Syrian children estimated to be out of school in Jordan to attend class.

The hajati program helped 50,000 Syrian students last school year; because of cuts, UNICEF reduced the number of beneficiaries to 10,000 for 2018/19, after which it is expected to stop altogether.

Also in the crosshairs is Makani, after-school centers that provide day-long tutoring, life skills, counseling, remedial education, kindergarten, and safe spaces for Syrian and Jordanian children to play and interact. For many, the Makani centers offer their only hope for education.

One such student is Mohammed, 15, who has gone six years without a full semester of school. When he was nine, his primary school was bombed by Syrian war planes. He fled to Jordan with his mother, uncle, and siblings after his father was killed and began four years of bouncing between refugee camps and shared apartments near industrial zones.

Now he cannot enter a Jordanian school, and for good reason: he cannot read or write. 

“I just want to be able to read street signs and store signs and maps,” Mohammed says in between remedial classes at a Makani center. “I want to know where I am going in life, and how to get back home…. If I can read and write, I can go to school. And if I go to school, my future will not be lost.”

Mohammed and hundreds of others like him stand to lose out as UNICEF has cut the number of its Makani centers from 200 across Jordan down to 100 centers this year. The program is in doubt beyond this year.

Syria reconstruction

The funding for these programs in Jordan has diminished as several humanitarian organizations that have partnered with the UN have begun redirecting their priorities away from refugees and toward the stabilization of Syria.

The flow of donor interest and funds from refugees to reconstruction has led several NGOs to float tenders for projects within Syria and create new positions for foreigners to head up “Syria” operations.

“The new buzzword is ‘reconstruction,’ and everyone wants a piece of the pie,” an aid worker who was not authorized to speak to the press says on the condition of anonymity. “Refugees in donors’ minds are old news.”

Yet UN officials warn that talk of refugee returns is very premature.

While Jordan saw 17,000 Syrian refugees return to their homeland in 2017, the rate slowed to 1,770 returns from January 2018 through September and no verified voluntary returns to Syria since June.

Despite a drive by the Lebanese government to encourage and facilitate its 1 million Syrian refugees to return home, both a lack of trust on the part of refugees and restrictions by the Syrian government have limited repatriations to a few thousand.

On the recently reopened Jordanian-Syrian border, meanwhile, a much publicized restoration of trade and passenger traffic has triggered a slow but steady trickle of Syrians travelling back to their homeland. Jordanian authorities reported that 108 refugees traveled back to Syria over the first five days the border was open.

Too soon to relocate

However, most Syrians traveling at the border tell a visiting reporter that they are going for family visits. Relocation, they say, is still not an option.

“We are so happy to have the chance to see family we could cry,” says Abu Ahmed, a Syrian heading to Damascus. “But we remain residents of Jordan and will for the future.”

And the UN insists that the conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for the return of millions, many of whom have been targeted by their own government.

“We don’t want to push refugees back into Syria before it and they are ready, and we don’t want to leave vulnerable Syrians in host countries without vital support,” says Mr. Severe of the UNHCR.

Jordanian officials recognize that conditions are not yet right for mass returns; many here fear that the international community will begin to redirect resources away from refugees prematurely, leaving host countries like Jordan and Lebanon to carry a burden that some liken to a social “time-bomb.”

Facing the cuts to assistance programs in the cities, thousands of Syrians are already returning to under-funded refugee camps in Jordan in search of free shelter and medical care.

UN experts warn the cut in aid could result in thousands of children dropping out of school to work and a spike in child marriages, crime, human trafficking, and exploitation.

“I don’t know what to do,”  the widowed Ms. Ajaj says after leaving the Jordanian NGO empty-handed, tears forming in her eyes. Unwilling to go back to Syria, unable to live in Jordan, the only answer, she says, may be putting her children on a migrant boat to Europe.

“We are out of options and out of hope,” she says, wiping her eyes. “What would you do?”

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4. With world’s tallest statue, India’s Modi stakes claim to future – and past

Sardar Patel knit together the India we know today by promising Hindus and Muslims fairness and hope in the new nation. But behind a massive statue in his honor unveiled today is a political desire to tell a subtly different story.

Mark
Amit Dave/Reuters
The "Statue of Unity," depicting Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the founding fathers of India, was inaugurated Oct. 31 in the western state of Gujarat, India.

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On Oct. 31, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled what’s being billed as the world’s tallest statue: a $410 million homage to Sardar Patel, a key figure in India’s fight for independence. The Statue of Unity is twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, clad in some 1,850 metric tons of bronze. In life, Patel, known as the “Iron Man of India,” was a unifier, the man who convinced some 550 princely states to join the new Indian government after independence – a government that enshrined a multicultural vision of India. But what kind of unity does his statue represent today? Many analysts say Mr. Modi and Hindu nationalist supporters are recrafting Patel’s legacy to claim him as one of their own. Modi’s party “desperately needs to seize upon Patel because it has no other reverential figures” from the freedom movement, says Sumit Ganguly, a professor at Indiana University. Since Modi’s election in 2014, his critics argue Hindu nationalists have used increasingly bold tactics to put Hindu faith and culture at the core of India’s identity – a trend many fear will leave minorities second-class citizens.

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With world’s tallest statue, India’s Modi stakes claim to future – and past

On his small organic farm in Gujarat, the western home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lakhanbhai Musafir flings out his arm in disgust in the direction of the soon-to-be-inaugurated Statue of Unity – billed as the tallest statue in the world.

“Modi calls this development,” says Mr. Musafir, an advocate for local tribes. “It’s his obsession to make himself immortal, like Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal.”

Towering over the Narmada River, the $410 million statue depicts Vallabhbhai Patel, known as Sardar Patel, one of the most important figures in India’s fight for independence from Britain, and an icon of national unity. The bald, stoop-shouldered subject presents an image of humility – though at nearly 600 feet tall, and clad in some 1,850 metric tons of bronze, it is commanding all the same.

Twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, the Statue of Unity will be inaugurated on Oct. 31 opposite the Sardar Sarovar Dam, marking the official launch of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 2019 election campaign. As a symbol, however, it may represent a different kind of unity from the multicultural, secular one that has defined India’s identity since the election of its first prime minister in 1947, and the framing of its Constitution two years later.

Modi’s party, which has brought Hindu nationalism to the forefront of Indian politics, is on the hunt for a new hero, historians and political analysts say. And though Patel was not a vocal supporter of “Hindutva,” as that ideology is called here, the BJP is now claiming Patel as one of their own – one of several cases in which the party has been accused of rewriting history with a Hindu nationalist bent.

Patel stands in stark contrast to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, says Tarun Vijay, a former BJP member of parliament.

Patel was not a “half-converted Englishman,” he says. “Patel belonged to the Indian soil…. He had the firmness of Napoleon – unshakeable, rock-like decisiveness.”

Under Nehru’s leadership, India adopted a Constitution that guaranteed the rights of religious minorities and enshrined separate laws on issues like marriage and inheritance for Hindus, Muslims (about 13 percent of the population), and Christians (some 2 percent). For many people, that multicultural vision remains the fundamental ethos of India.

But for Hindu nationalists, that “pseudo-secularism,” as some call it, is an affront. Their core ideology of Hindtuva, or Hinduness, envisions a state in which Hindu faith and culture are front and center – and that many fear will leave minorities second-class citizens. And since Modi’s election in 2014, his critics argue Hindu nationalists have used increasingly bold tactics to make that vision a reality: from rewriting textbooks and stacking academic institutions, to emboldening mobs who have killed two dozen people for allegedly eating or transporting beef.

Iron Man of India

Modi launched the project and lay its foundation stone in 2013, amid the lead-up to the 2014 general election, as he wooed moderates with business-friendly reform. At the time, he had been chief minister of Gujarat for more than a decade, including during 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslim. His administration’s response to the attacks has been hotly debated, with many researchers blaming officials for failing to quell the violence.

Now, as he begins his campaign for re-election in 2019, the statue has become fraught with political meaning, says Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly.

Early Hindu nationalist groups, the BJP’s precursors, did not take a leading role in India’s struggle for independence. And it was a Hindu nationalist, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, because he felt Gandhi had proved too accommodating to Muslims. By building a mammoth statue of Patel, Modi hopes to gain his own iconic freedom fighter, analysts say.

“The BJP desperately needs to seize upon Patel because it has no other reverential figures” from the freedom movement, Dr. Ganguly says.

For Hindu nationalists, Patel presents a compelling alternative to Nehru – whose great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is the present leader of the Congress Party, the main opposition.

Known as “the Iron Man of India,” Patel helped convince some 550 princely states to cede their power to the new government after independence. He thus suits many nationalists’ craving for muscular leaders, some analysts observe – reflected in how the movement has embraced a warrior-like version of the Hindu deity Rama and the monkey-god Hanuman who fought beside him; and even in Modi’s boasts about having a 56-inch chest.

Right-wingers have also suggested that Patel opposed Nehru’s interpretation of secularism, and would have forged a different country had he been India’s first leader, says Mujibur Rehman, an assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University who recently authored a book on the Hindu right, titled “Rise of Saffron Power.” Patel was a life-long member of the Congress Party, but Hindu nationalists have long argued that he envisioned a more assimilationist secularism devoid of “appeasement” of minorities.

“They see him as an anti-Nehru figure that the Congress [Party] did not explore [as a potential prime minister], and say therefore things have gone wrong in our country,” Dr. Rehman says.

At times, Patel opposed faith-specific policies that Nehru had supported, says Hindol Sengupta, the author of a recent biography of Patel titled “The Man Who Saved India.” For example, during the division of British India into majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan, which displaced millions of people, Nehru pushed to reserve the homes of Muslims who fled to Pakistan for other Muslims. Patel, meanwhile, argued the homes should be offered to anyone.

“Patel was strongly secular. He wanted parity for all faiths,” says Mr. Sengupta. “He argued that the principle of division had already divided the country. Now what remained must be one nation.”

Patel also opposed Nehru’s decision to let the United Nations determine the fate of the Kashmir region, still contested today.

“For decades, one party devoted all their energies to serve one family,” Modi said in a parliamentary speech in February, excoriating the Congress Party’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. “If Sardar Patel had become the prime minister, today a part of our beloved Kashmir would not have been under Pakistani occupation."

Look on my works

The Sardar Sarovar Dam that the statue overlooks has been at the center of protests and court cases for decades, over disputes about displaced villages and environmental impact. The dam has already displaced hundreds of villages; now, the statue will add another 16 to that number, according to Mr. Musafir, the tribal activist.

“We told the government if you spend 10 million rupees ($140 million) to repair the existing canals, the farmland of this entire area can be irrigated, but they said they don’t have the staff or the money,” he says. “Yet to build this one statue they are spending 30 billion rupees ($410 million).”

But by locating the giant statue opposite the massive dam, the BJP also highlights technological progress, which Modi has promoted in plans for “smart cities” and bullet trains. Constructed at enormous cost and projected to attract 15,000 tourists a day, Patel’s statue includes an elevator up its spine that allows visitors to look out over the dam through Patel’s eyes.

Amarsingh Tadvi, whose construction crew may work on related projects, is a fan of the statue – and the man it depicts.

“Nehru thought about his family and his family’s development. But Patel was more selfless,” he says.

As for Modi, “he’s a great man of India. Modi and development are like the two sides of a coin.”

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Books

5. It’s alive! On Halloween, Frankenreads celebrate 200th anniversary of classic.

Live readings of Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic around the world are offering a treat and a fresh sense of community for many of the book’s fans this Halloween.  

Mark

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of “Frankenstein,” more than 600 Frankenreads have been planned in 43 countries, ranging from film screenings to museum exhibits to marathon readings of the monstrous classic, which has inspired everything from more than 50 movies to breakfast cereal. “It goes beyond popular culture and into the book itself,” says Marc Ruppel, a senior program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which partnered with the Keats-Shelley Association of America to create Frankenreads. “And the fact that it has something to tell us about ourselves, something to tell us about the ways that we engage with technology, engage with humanity, and engage with each other.” At the Library of Congress’s free Halloween event Wednesday, designated readers, including horrormeister R.L. Stein, award-winning author Louis Bayard, and actor John Cena, read 10 minutes of Mary Shelley’s classic. “It’s a very complicated fable, but it’s deeply embedded in all sorts of cultural, professional, scientific, technological anxieties about progress, which comes with promise and doesn’t always think through the perils,” says Dr. Susan Wolfson, a professor of English at Princeton University who organized a Frankenread on campus.

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It’s alive! On Halloween, Frankenreads celebrate 200th anniversary of classic.

Carolinn Kuebler says she found the perfect way to celebrate one of her favorite holidays.

On Oct. 31, she headed to the haunted halls of … the Library of Congress. There authors, actors, and librarians were lining up – not to trick or treat or wait for the Great Pumpkin – but to bring a 200-year-old book to life.

Wearing a festive sweater with a bright orange pumpkin on it, the Washington architect listens intently to “Frankenstein,” a novel she herself has read several times. She says she’s happy to relive the story of the inventor who thought he could create life, and this time have it read aloud to her.

“With podcasts and everything, people are really getting into listening to stories again, which I think is really cool,” says Ms. Kuebler.

To celebrate the anniversary of “Frankenstein,” more than 600 Frankenreads have been planned in at least 43 countries – ranging from film screenings to museum exhibits to marathon reads of the monstrous classic, which has inspired everything from more than 50 movies to breakfast cereal.

“It goes beyond popular culture and into the book itself,” says Marc Ruppel, a senior program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which partnered with the Keats-Shelley Association of America to create the Frankenreads. “And the fact that it has something to tell us about ourselves, something to tell us about the ways that we engage with technology, engage with humanity, and engage with each other.”

At the Library of Congress’s free event, designated readers, including award-winning author Louis Bayard and Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, stand at two podiums in the center of the room. Each read for ten minutes as a camera switches between the two so that the reading can continue unbroken. The list includes a few pre-recorded appearances from figures like horrormeister R.L. Stein, actor John Cena, and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. Throughout the reading, tours of the library continue with school groups catching snippets of the novel as they walk by.

From “The Munsters” to “Young Frankenstein” to memes, the horror story a teenage Mary Shelley dreamed up one night to win a contest in which the competition included her poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron has resonated in pop culture. In fact, a movie about the contest itself, starring Elle Fanning, was released just last year.

In addition to winning the contest, some literary scholars say Shelley invented what became the science fiction genre.

“It’s a very complicated fable but it’s deeply embedded in all sorts of cultural, professional, scientific, technological anxieties about progress, which comes with promise and doesn’t always think through the perils,” says Dr. Susan Wolfson, a professor of English at Princeton University who organized a Frankenread on campus.

Reading aloud presents an important alternative to entertainment on screens, says Mr. Ruppel. The marathon read of “Frankenstein,” inspired in part by Bloomsday readings of “Ulysses” by James Joyce, holds significance in a world where technology encourages separate, individuated experiences.

“It matters that we begin to start to share these things again,” says Ruppel, “and that we do it in way I think that allows for some real patience and just deliberateness on our part.”

The book, which is estimated to have sold 80 million to 100 million copies worldwide, has been kept alive in part to its celebration in film, says Neil Fraistat, president of the Keats-Shelley Association of America and organizer of Frankenreads. Since 1910, film renditions have popularized the story all over the world, with actors from Boris Karloff to Peter Boyle to Robert De Niro playing Victor Frankenstein’s misbegotten creation. But the novel’s message – as well as the monster – are why it still resonates.

Throughout the many retellings of the Gothic novel, “Frankenstein” encourages us to think more deeply about humanity, says Mr. Fraistat. And in doing so, “we can learn the importance of empathy, love, [and] ethical responsibility.”

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The Monitor's View

Oman’s guiding hand in a churning Mideast

Two ways to read the story

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In recent weeks, the tiny Arab state of Oman has hosted Israel’s prime minister, Iran’s foreign minister for special political affairs, the Palestinian president, and a United Nations envoy. Each visit was held in secret, which befits Oman’s historic role as a trusted go-between. Yet three possible outcomes now seem to be in the open. One, an Omani official said “maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same” as other states in the Middle East. Two, calls have emerged for a swift cease-fire in Yemen. Three, the Israeli sports minister, Miri Regev, was able to visit Abu Dhabi and sing her country’s national anthem at a sports event in the heart of the Arab world. What gives Oman its influence as mediator? Its diplomacy focuses on understanding the interests of other countries rather than trying to maximize its own gains. This allows Oman to keep an open invitation to countries seeking to negotiate a way out of a difficult situation. And Oman’s honest listening and genuine concern for others may be helping produce results.

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Oman’s guiding hand in a churning Mideast

One of the calmest cities in the Middle East has been very busy of late, acting as a hall of odd fellows.

In recent weeks, Muscat, the capital of the tiny Arab state of Oman, has hosted Israel’s prime minister, Iran’s foreign minister for special political affairs, the Palestinian president, and the United Nations envoy for the Yemen conflict.

Each visit was held in secret, of course, which befits Oman’s historic role as a trusted go-between in the region. Yet three possible outcomes now seem to be in the open.

One, Oman’s minister for foreign affairs said “maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same” as other states in the Middle East. The suggestion was not widely disputed by most Arab states, not even Saudi Arabia, which is in the midst of ongoing global criticism for its role in killing of a prominent Saudi dissident.

Two, both the Defense secretary and secretary of State for the United States have called for a swift cease-fire in the war in Yemen and peace talks to take place next month. The four-year-old war has killed some 10,000 and left more than a third of the population in a humanitarian crisis. “It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Three, the Israeli sports minister, Miri Regev, was able to visit Abu Dhabi, sing her country’s national anthem at a sports event in the heart of the Arab world, and visit the third largest mosque in the world.

As retired Gen. David Petraeus said at a recent conference in the region, the Middle East is in the midst of a “realignment” of power. Events are shifting the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US may soon propose a new peace process for the Israel-Palestinian standoff. And while the war in Syria winds down, the war in Yemen has escalated.

Oman, as it has done in the past, is playing a crucial role as a mediator in many of these shifts. It is friendly to Iran, its fellow Arab states, and the West. It can talk to both sides in the Yemen conflict, even brokering the release of Western hostages in Yemen. And it has been a back channel during the Syrian war and an intra-Arab dispute over Qatar.

What gives it this influence?

Oman seeks to live a peaceful existence as a neutral player between the bigger powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet its monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has been in power since 1970, also has a guiding philosophy on how to build trust and mutual respect.

The country’s diplomacy focuses on understanding the interests of other countries rather than trying to maximize its own gains, explains Sayyid Badr bin Hamad al-Busaidi, secretary-general of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It relies on seeing them as “though we were as them, to see the world through their eyes.”

“Is there some solution to this problem that neither of us have yet thought of that might turn out to work better for both of us?” says Mr. Busaidi.

This approach allows Oman to keep an open invitation to countries seeking to negotiate a way out of a difficult situation. And as the recent visits of foreign diplomats to Muscat shows, Oman’s honest listening and genuine concern for others may be helping produce results.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Quelling anger, finding common ground

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At a time when “common ground” and “politics” too often seem mutually exclusive, there are sparks of hope (see today’s Monitor Daily article on this topic). Today’s column explores a spiritual basis for unity, civility, and progress in the political arena.

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Quelling anger, finding common ground

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Has hostility become a constant? Does party loyalty now equal contempt for the opposing party? Do these attitudes so corrode interparty dialogue that finding consensus and compromise is now nearly impossible?

It might be too easy to trace the hostility back to where we get our news. After all, a significant segment of viewers turn to media outlets that deliver the news with a political slant built into their coverage. But while such journalism may fan the flames, it did not light the blaze of ferocious partisanship. Anger has smoldered across the political landscape for some time now.

It wasn’t always the case. For the last half of the 20th century, or at least much of it, Washington politicians, including those from the far right and far left, got along on a personal and social level. They had dinner together, even attended the weddings of one another’s children. When it came time to do the business of the nation, they often found room for compromise. Sure, not everyone agreed, but more often than not, middle ground appeared when needed and government functioned.

Is the present anger and polarization on the political landscape irreversible? Or could a shared spiritual reality, accepted as a commonality of unmatched importance, have a unifying effect, serving as the basis for bridge-building and maybe even extinguishing some of the anger?

With utter simplicity, the Scriptures rhetorically ask, “Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10). This Old Testament promise of one Father, one creator, gets reiterated time and again in the New Testament. For example, the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Christ Jesus left for all humanity, are “Our Father.”

This shared spiritual parentage is a strong foundation for true bridge-building. However, there’s more to this idea, too. The one God, our one divine Father, is also the one Mind, or source of understanding. He is the one Principle, or source of harmony. This harmony of divine Principle, God, promotes a civility that once looked extinct.

Each of us – politicians and non-politicians alike – can hold to these ideas, letting the divine Mind, God, good, lead us forward rather than giving in to hostility. In this way, the embers of animosity begin to cool. The possibilities for coming together begin to warm. The pursuit of common goals grows more realistic. We begin to see more clearly that having the unity of Principle that leads to unity of purpose is normal and natural. Ultimately, not even the most dramatic of human events has a unifying power that matches the Divine. In a single embrace He gathers us all in.

Opening our thought to this spiritual reality doesn’t require abandoning our political convictions. Rather, it opens the door for connecting links to show up where before there were none, for those of various political persuasions – and those of no political persuasion – to deepen their appreciation for whatever common ground they share.

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, waged a decades-long campaign to bring spiritual healing to every arena of life. She wrote in her primary work, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “With one Father, even God, the whole family of man would be brethren; and with one Mind and that God, or good, the brotherhood of man would consist of Love and Truth, and have unity of Principle and spiritual power which constitute divine Science” (pp. 469-470).

May humanity realize this more fully, and see anger on the political scene begin to ebb, common ground start to surface, and better government dawn.

Adapted from an editorial published in the Jan. 11, 2010, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

The duck boats are back

Brian Fluharty/USA Today
The Boston Red Sox 2018 World Series championship parade travels down Boylston Street near the city’s Copley Square Oct. 31, a scene that’s been repeated after most of the city’s sports championship wins.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 1st, 2018 )

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when we look at the good behind an activity that the Pittsburgh shooter targeted. The Jewish tradition of welcoming and caring for refugees comes from a deep sense of moral obligation. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

October 31, 2018
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